The colours of an Artist

Ambica Gulati

Arpana Caur The colours of an Artist

The Shows

‘My first solo in Mumbai was a sell-out. It was at Jehangir Art Gallery and we stayed at the YWCA. It was a very exhausting process for we had to stretch out the canvases every day. At night they were kept under a berth. One day, Mrs Menon, then assistant director of the gallery, was beaming when we entered the gallery. “You have sold your first work,” she told me. And the person who bought that was M.F. Husain. For the first group show that I had sent my canvases in Delhi, I didn’t even have the courage to show him my works. Later, I saw that painting in a museum in Bangalore. It was called the “Rape of Maya Tyagi”, based on an unfortunate incident of rape that occurred in the 1980s. That whole show was sold out.’

And Arpana found herself featured on the cover of the Bombay magazine. Even the Times of India covered her as did the Free Press Journal. ‘And we didn’t even know anyone in Mumbai. It was 1980. Delhi didn’t have a good market but there were four galleries in Mumbai and they did well. Two were run by Parsis. The Parsi community patronised artists.’

Reiterating her love for museums, Arpana says that she has given two of her paintings to the Bihar Museum in Patna, which was inaugurated in October 2017. ‘I gifted one from the Day and Night series and one of Buddha and Ashoka as people relate to them in that region.’

Her Own Critic

Work evolves daily for her. And Arpana is her own fiercest critic. ‘All days are not good days. If I make twelve paintings in a year, then some are As, some Bs and some Cs. And when I feel my work is C, then I put the scissors to it.’

A lesson learned the hard way, she says. ‘This was when my works weren’t selling. One day, Ravi Jain, the owner of Dhoomimal, the oldest art gallery in Delhi, called to say that a foreigner was looking for large figurative works. He sent a truck and we loaded around ten works. The gentleman bought three of them. He later had an auction and one work found its way to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This was from the “Widows of Vrindavan” series. Many years later when my paintings began to sell and I had a show in London, the curator of the museum invited me to see that painting. I saw it and was at once filled with shame for I thought it was a lousy one. Since then, the prices of my works have gone up multi-fold. But I offered to give them a better painting for free and take this back. She couldn’t do that as it had gone into their acquisition list. And they loved what they had.

‘Since then I thought that it’s better to destroy my weak works than let them go into the market. I don’t want to find my wrong works in the right places! Now, I really don’t worry about the money, though it is an incentive to keep creating better work.’

More than Figures

Contemporary art might be her forte, but Arpana has also painted much more. ‘I have done the landscapes of Ladakh, illustrated books, made sculptures, done murals, non-commercial ones too. There was one I did in Delhi, between India Gate and Connaught Place on environment in the year 2000. This was in collaboration with a German artist. It got destroyed as there were toilets behind the building.’

A bureaucrat from Bangalore saw that and invited Arpana to work on five walls the city. ‘These were good walls and I did them for free. I did a Buddha on a very busy road. Then I did murals in Germany and Nepal too.’

On book illustrations, Arpana says that she published Nanak: The Guru in collaboration with famous author Khushwant Singh’s daughter Maya Dayal, besides Hymns of the Sikh Gurus, which unfortunately is now out of print.

On ever going and working abroad, she says, ‘I was offered a teaching job at the Chicago Art College, but Delhi is where I belong despite its many ills and problems. I told my mother we should die here as it is our city. I did go for a month-long seven-city tour in America with a lady chaperone to see the different kinds of art. This was a museum trip and I went to Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Minneapolis, Chicago, New Mexico. I met some curators and was deeply touched by job offers but I declined.’

And life is all about work for the lady who loves the colours it has to offer. ‘Always working! My works are currently on display in Phoenix Museum and Philadelphia Museum. There are a lot of group shows in India and overseas all the time. I had the forty-year retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore and Svaraj Archive in Uttar Pradesh,’ she adds with big smile.

Work doesn’t stop for Arpana Caur as she is inspired daily by the world around her.

Ambica Gulati
Armed with an experience of two decades in journalism, Ambica Gulati is a storyteller. She loves meeting people, exploring places and is turning into a photo geek. She has been part of an eminent coffee table book 100 Legal Luminaries of India, worked in magazines (Life Positive, Swagat, Outlook Traveller), written on food, culture wellness and more, and is bored when stationed in one place for too long. Follow her on